Nightshade Preview

We talk to Overworks to get a closer look at its upcoming ninja game for the PlayStation 2.

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Nightshade (2003)
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Nightshade is developer Overworks' follow-up to last year's Shinobi, which updated the classic Sega franchise on the PlayStation 2. While not a flawless endeavor, Shinobi's approach to fast-paced 3D action featured several promising gameplay elements that merited some exploration. Overworks apparently had similar sentiments and has offered up Nightshade, a 3D action game that shares the spirit of Shinobi but refines its gameplay in an original adventure. We had the opportunity to take a closer look at the upcoming title and talked with two members of the team--both of whom are currently working on the game--to find out what to expect from Nightshade.

Nightshade serves up some fast-paced she-ninja action.
Nightshade serves up some fast-paced she-ninja action.

Nightshade, formerly known by the same moniker as its Japanese counterpart--Kunoichi--takes place one year after Shinobi and focuses on she-ninja extraordinaire Hibana. While Shinobi hero Hotsuma's triumph over evil was all well and good, it would seem that wicked folk are much like roaches and turn up where they're least expected. This point is amply proven at the start of Nightshade, which finds Hibana assigned to getting to the bottom of some trouble that's been brewing and threatens to unleash hordes of demons on Tokyo. It seems that the cursed blade Akujiki, last seen in Shinobi, has been broken into pieces by the government, which used the shards to create barriers around the city to shield it from demonic monsters that are eager to "get their mindless destruction on." Unfortunately, representatives of the Nakatomi Corporation have begun snapping up the sword's shards for a mysterious, but undoubtedly evil, purpose. Your task, as you step into Hibana's white and red ninja suit, is to figure out what Nakatomi is up to and stop them before Tokyo is overrun by demons. (City officials are hoping to avoid any more razings of the city, what with all the damage caused in the original Shinobi--not to mention the regular "visits" by Godzilla and company.)

If you played the original Shinobi, you should be fairly familiar with what to expect from Nightshade's core gameplay. The game's basic structure is fairly close to last year's game, although there have been some notable refinements. You'll still explore areas that are separated into chunks by mystic barriers that will only fall once you've defeated all nearby enemies and once you've destroyed all the special mystical artifacts that power them. Every so often, your adventuring will lead you to face off against assorted bosses who will test your familiarity with Hibana's moves. However, while it may sound as though Overworks has cooked up a note-for-note rehash of Shinobi, that's simply not the case. Level design features a bit more variety and peppers the exploration and boss fights with new sequences that will offer some surprises. You'll now find "on rails" sequences that will find you duking it out on the deck of a stealth bomber and also making your way through clusters of moving cars in a freeway sequence.

You'll be able to kick your troubles away thanks to some new moves.
You'll be able to kick your troubles away thanks to some new moves.

Overworks producers Masahiro Kumono and Ryutaro Nonaka are quick to point out that, while the game does, in fact, share similarities to Shinobi, a number of tweaks have been implemented that are based on user feedback. While the team was pleased with what they accomplished with last year's game, it was also just a start. When the development of Nightshade began, they reexamined many aspects of their approach and opted to implement some changes to provide a better overall experience that would be challenging but not as brutal as some of the latter sequences in Shinobi (Hello, moth boss!). For example, positive reaction to the tates in the first game--essentially a combo system that rewarded you with cinematic kills if you managed to defeat enough enemies within a set time--has resulted in an adjustment to the system. A new open-ended tally system now lets you string together an unlimited number of kills, and you can rack up some impressive sequences. The combo system has also been beefed up, thanks to the inclusion of a pair of short swords that Hibana wields. The pair of weapons can be quickly worked into combos, thus increasing your score bonus by having extended your combo sequence. Along the same lines, Hibana possesses a kick that can be used to home-in on enemies when airborne, which is invaluable for creating long air combos.

The emphasis on combos in the game's combat system is due to two key gameplay elements in Nightshade--new special attacks and unlockable extras. As you play Nightshade you'll notice a new meter in the game's heads-up display. The "chakra gauge" is segmented into three chunks and slowly charges up as you attack enemies. Once you've filled up one segment, you're able to perform a special move, called a stealth dash, which does a great amount of damage to whatever or whoever Hibana unleashes it on. Due to the crippling damage it doles out, we expect this special attack to become a vital resource when battling the game's bosses.

The other gameplay element that requires you to become a combo whiz regards the game's unlockable extras. As you earn points in the game, you'll be rewarded with extras that open up, much like in the same way you opened up content in the original Shinobi by collecting special coins. The system has been tweaked a bit to rely on point totals rather than specific pickups, although you'll still find a nice assortment of items to collect if you're meticulous about exploring the various levels. While the producers were vague on the specifics of what you'll unlock, we expect the content to be similar to Shinobi's offerings and will probably take the form of new playable characters and game modes. Given the timing of the game and Akujiki's role in the plot, we wouldn't be surprised if we saw Hotsuma make some kind of appearance in the game proper or in the unlockables.

The control makes use of the same basic system and button layout as Shinobi. You're able to jump, dash, lock-on to enemies, and can attack pretty easily after a few minutes with the game. The inclusion of Hibana's short swords has been folded into the existing scheme pretty comfortably. Hibana's kick, which is invaluable in the air, is quite useful on the ground too, as you're able to deflect incoming projectiles, like missiles, if you time the kick properly.

The cinematic tate system returns with some flashy new tweaks.
The cinematic tate system returns with some flashy new tweaks.

The graphics have been refined, along with the gameplay, and offer a richer look overall. Hibana's character model features a high level of detail and moves nicely. While she lacks Hotsuma's flashy bright red scarf, she manages to have a bit of flair, thanks to twin veils that trail behind her. However, unlike Hotsuma's attention-seeking scarf, Hibana's veils actually serve a function in the game, as they are part of the stealth system that helps her to sneak around. In addition, the two short swords she wields during combos add some nice flourishes to her impressive attacks. The assorted enemies you'll face off against include a motley crew of evildoers that run the gamut from evil robots of doom to evil mutated creatures of doom and everything in between. This time out, your foes possess a higher level of detail than many of the bland enemies seen in Shinobi, which adds to the visual presentation. The environments offer more variety in time of day and setting, which helps give the game a more dynamic look. While you'll still journey to dark sewers--it's hard not to when facing evil creatures--you'll also spend some time outdoors during the day. In addition to the expected city settings, the game throws some nice visual surprises your way during the aforementioned "on rails" sequences, which are featured in insane camera angles and in background action, to keep the pacing of the levels fast. The expanded visuals also extend to the real-time cinematics for the tate's and special chakra attacks, which feature some eye-catching flourishes. The tate's now offer cool Kill Bill-like silhouettes and grainy black and white effects, along with the standard dramatic camera angles that are featured when you take out enough foes. The new chakra attacks make use of various effects, as Hibana launches shadow images of herself against enemies. In addition to the impressive in-game graphics, Nightshade also makes use of CG movies that are peppered between levels and help to move its story along. Despite the tweaks and improvements to the graphics engine, Nightshade still maintains a solid frame rate that's comparable to Shinobi's. The only rough edges to the visuals regard the camera system, which, while improved, can still serve up an awkward angle.

Dealing with demonic hordes is a nice change of pace for a ninja, as it lets you travel to new places so you can meet lots of interesting things to kill.
Dealing with demonic hordes is a nice change of pace for a ninja, as it lets you travel to new places so you can meet lots of interesting things to kill.

The audio is shaping up to be a solid offering, thanks to some good design choices. The game's soundtrack offers an eclectic collection of tunes that mixes modern and classic Asian themes into a catchy mélange that provides solid accompaniment to all the butt-kicking and boss battles. The game should also include audio options, similar to Shinobi, and should offer English and Japanese voice and subtitles.

From what we've seen so far, Nightshade is a promising follow-up to Shinobi that appears to evolve the strongest elements of that game. The new tweaks seem to maintain a solid level of challenge and lack the harsh difficulty found in its predecessor. While the visuals aren't a massive improvement over Shinobi's, they take a more visually interesting approach that should end up offering a stronger overall presentation. Fans of last year's Shinobi--or anyone longing for some vicarious ninja action--will want to keep an eye out for Nightshade. The game is currently slated to ship early next year for the PlayStation 2. Look for more on it in the coming weeks.

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